William Hurt: On the Edge of Postmodernism

January 26, 2010

By a reasonably objective metric (academy award nominations), William Hurt ranks as one of the greatest film actors of all-time (he has four) and yet he makes no appearance on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars. On its own, this would be a triviality; many great actors fail to achieve mass consciousness. Perhaps I’m betraying my age, but has anyone ever gone to a movie just to experience the raw animal magnetism of Albert Finney? But, as we’ve mentioned many times, William Hurt owned the 1980s, starring in several of the decade’s biggest commercial and creative successes.

I thought about this the other day while watching Damages season 2 on DVD. There’s a scene where William Hurt’s character takes a polygraph. Hurt’s character is exactly the type of role for which he’s remembered: handsome without being charming, and cold without appearing calculating; uncertainty surrounds him. And Hurt is an expert at maximizing uncertainty. Watching him take the polygraph, you’re sure that he’s managed to pass the test while lying. When it comes back inconclusive, you’re almost surprised. Is he not as devious as I thought, or could he be telling the truth? There may only be a 5% chance that he’s telling the truth, but Hurt makes you consider it. In this way, he’s a great foil to Glenn Close whose skill is smiling as she stabs a knife in your back. She’s good at convincing other characters that she’s being honest, but not so good at staying a step ahead of viewers. Only the show’s jumbling of chronology allows those possibilities to slip in.

But again, the mystery that is William Hurt and his ownership (or: pwnage) of the 1980s. Frederic Jameson suggested that William Hurt was the ultimate postmodern actor. The stars of the 1970s were known for their exuberant, over-the-top personalities. De Niro, Pacino; even their afterimages consist of them screaming. Or Elliott Gould who momentarily transfixed America by merging the nebbishness of Woody Allen and the sex appeal of Paul Newman. Time magazine called him “An Uptight Star for an Uptight Age,” and that’s about as fitting a tagline as anyone could ever devise.

But Hurt offered something different. He retreated from personality. Jameson describes it as mixing the absence of personality “in the older sense” with the anonymity of character acting. In Body Heat he manages to be both sleazy and charmingly innocent; charming in “Broadcast News” while thoroughly tedious in “The Accidental Tourist.” It’s movie star looks combined with the unassuming quality of John C. Reily.

This is what makes his performance in “A History of Violence” so thrilling. For ten minutes, William Hurt is able to unleash a barrage of evil on Viggo Mortenson, taking him to unexpected heights. It’s a classic performance of personality of a magnetic performance dominating the scene. But it is also an unburdened one. We aren’t experiencing an earlier performance resurrected, a feeling we always have with later-day Pacino. We are experiencing something channeled for that very moment. A performance that exists one-time, almost like a piece of theater.

William Hurt’s success is that he’s able to obliterate all residue of personality from the screen. Jameson is wrong in that there is a brand “William Hurt” that he carries onto the screen, but it’s a peculiar one. Hurt masterfully erases his image with every role, leaving the stage blank.

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2 Responses to “William Hurt: On the Edge of Postmodernism”

  1. Cicero Says:

    this does not account for Kiss of the Spider Woman.


    • It does, in the sense that the performance is so atypical that it lacks all standing. But, even there, it’s clear that Hurt is working through the uncertainty surrounding his character. The only reason the movie works is because Hurt guides us toward the movie’s tricks.


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